Phoebe's Journey Part 4

Chapter 7: Battles Open and Veiled

We returned to the house after our morning meeting with Ashidaka's widow. We had plenty of time for lunch and whatever else we might want to do for a bit before the meeting with Bayushi Korechika in the afternoon.

When we arrived, Furedu stood outside, waiting for us. Before we could enter, he glanced at Lady Miyara, but then addressed Tony. "There are five monks from the School of" ... some name quickly rattled off that I didn't catch ... "here to see you." You-Tony, not you-Miyara Miwa, was the clear message.

In Imperial, Tony said he figured it had to do with the previous day's duel. Lady Miyara didn't deny that possibility. He asked her for suggestions, and with a slight smile, she said she had none.

So we dismounted and servants took our horses away. I'm not happy with how used I've gotten to invisible servants taking care of so many things. They come and go so silently, so facelessly. And they are mostly uncomfortable with being noticed at all. I've had to stop thanking them because it makes them nervous. The nameless "them", with no distinctions. It's these little things that make me homesick, although I don't truthfully have any interest in returning home.

Tony led us in, Lady Miyara just behind him. Suddenly and silently, she was now his backup. They changed places so efficiently. Tony's attention was entirely on the five men who waited for him, and it was Lady Miyara who alertly watched them, watched the balcony, assessed the gardens and the rest of the courtyard. Lady Miyara who stood a few steps away, ready for instant battle should it be required. Tony who stepped forward and handled the situation as it required.

Anyway, when we entered the courtyard, we saw five men, all dressed in a plain brown kimono and trousers outfit. They were sitting quietly, meditatively, on the ground. The middle one stood up when Tony approached them, repeated the introduction that Furedu had given us -- and I still have no idea what the name of their school is -- and bowed to Tony, who bowed back.

"The samurai you killed yesterday was a member of our school. The master of the school has bid us to come here and test you."

"Test me or us?" I admired Tony's use of the language. Somehow he managed to imply the us was Tony plus the five monks, rather than Lady Miyara's odd collection of gaijin.

The response was immediate. The man on the far right hopped up and ran at Tony, making a flying a kick at him. The one in the middle answered verbally, "you".

I glanced at Lady Miyara, to see how she would take this unannounced attack on Tony. She seemed unsurprised, and actually took a couple more steps back, looking at the rest of us to be sure we followed suit and didn't interfere. So I supposed this was something like the duel, something between Tony and the five men alone. I noticed, however, her hands never left the close vicinity of her sword hilts, and her attention never wavered from the action. Well, wavered somewhat, since she was also on guard against possible hidden attacks from elsewhere, but that was all sort of the same thing, if you follow me. Mehli, too, played her part, and kept a close watch on everything.

Tony, in response to the threat from an unarmed man who was there to "test" him, drew his katana still in its sheath and used it in his defense. My mouth opened: I've never seen anyone fight with a sheathed sword. You would think the balance would be all wrong. And wouldn't it be awfully heavy?

It didn't seem to slow Tony down much. He ducked the initial flying kick (something else I've never seen before outside acrobatic exhibitions at a Faire). The two sparred briefly, and Tony ended by giving him a great wallop with his sheathed katana that sent the man to ground. Where he remained. I knew he wasn't dead and probably not hurt terribly, so I let him be and continued watching. In a more deadly combat, I would never heal an enemy so that he could continue his attack on any of us, of course. This was obviously non-lethal combat, and so the man was in no immediate danger anyway.

This happened three more times, with Tony swatting the guy down each time. With the third attack (over all, so three of four), the man did some complicated maneuver while dodging out of the way of his sword and Tony actually lost his grip and the katana -- still in its sheath! -- went skittering across the courtyard. Tony didn't lose a beat and simply drew his wakizashi and sheath and continued his defense with it.

Four down, leaving only the apparent leader of the group. He stared at Tony blankly a moment, then flew at him himself. That fight lasted longer than the others, and he managed to swat Tony a few times. Finally, the man danced out of the way and bowed to Tony, effectively ending the whole thing. Tony bowed back and tucked his wakizashi-and-sheath back into his sash.

"I would like to visit your school to talk with your master. Ask your master if that is possible." I could feel his eagerness to learn an unfamiliar method of combat.

The man bowed and said, "Hai". Two of the monks on the floor stood up and the three men left.

Of course, as Tony was speaking, I walked up to him, touched him, and pulled Arati into him. A moment only, and Arati transferred some of me into him and healed him of his hurts. He bowed his thanks to me, and I then did the same with the two men on the ground. Peter knelt beside me, and his Shallya fed me Peter's energy as well.

They thanked me politely and left to catch up with the others. Tony picked up his katana and shook his head at the somewhat battered-looking wooden sheath.

Sun materialized and said he'd take care of that and took charge of both swords. At this rate, we'd have to put the armorer on permanent retainer.

With that, we retired to wash up and then to lunch. As we ate, Lady Miyara pulled out the scrolls and summarized the comments of the magistrate before Ashidaka. The lady who had retired because she was apparently too upright for the job. Reading between the lines, of course.

She'd liked him less than any other Scorpion in Ryoko Owari, but felt surprisingly comfortable around him. Because he seemed so much the typical scorpion, she said: venal, slippery, dishonest, selfish. When he took power here, he took the existing Bayushi network of merchants and added new ones, taxing them until they begged to be released from his control. He was constantly jockeying for position among the merchants of the city, she said with obvious disdain, and had become a significant force in a short period of time. He seemed to have little time for personal concerns except that he collected rare foreign birds. She suspected that his real concern was opium. Which, of course, we knew to be true.

Lady Miyara paused and said the magistrate had added an anecdote about the man that was interesting. The Emerald Magistrate was arresting one of "his" craftsmen, charging with possession of liquid opium. Bayushi trumped her with a writ from the governor and the governor's chief magistrate Osaka which both claimed that since the craftsman was going to distribute it locally, it fell under their jurisdiction for questioning, and not the Emerald Magistrate's. She said, "they took him away, and of course he did not live to see the next morning. I believed that he was executed not for being a criminal, but for being an incompetent one."

And this is what one is supposed to expect from a Scorpion? Nipponese honor is more slippery than it seems, I guess.

Lady Miyara stated a preference that Tony look "imposing". He dressed in his best gaijin mercenary manner, since his Nipponese weapons were being repaired. Chain mail, a broadsword and two (two!) shortswords strapped to him, a shield. He bristled like a porcupine.

On our arrival at Bayushi Korechika's house, we were immediately led into a room. It wasn't as out-of-the-way as the room we met the governor in, but it was definitely just a room and not whatever he might have in the way of official audience chambers. There, we waited, and Lady Miyara grew impatient. When he arrived, we hadn't waited a very long time, but it was obviously just a trifle longer than she thought was necessary.

His party matched ours exactly, in numbers, although he had more bushi with him. He had only one obvious shugenja. I briefly wondered if they considered Grieg, Peter, and I shugenja or priests. There's no telling what they'd make of Mehli, who is armed and armored much more lightly than a bushi, but certainly more heavily than either shugenja or priest. I didn't ask. I just listened, and watched.

The tension was almost visible, although Miyara Miwa and Bayushi Korechika utterly ignored it and chatted in an almost friendly manner. However, every word they spoke merely veiled their true meanings, and it was not a friendly conversation. Tony stared uneasily at the shugenja, who obviously saw and relished his discomfort.

Venal, slippery, dishonest, selfish. Those words seemed to apply to the whole group of them, not just Lord Bayushi. It's hard to set aside the picture that Asako Kinto painted for me of a nest of swarming scorpions.

I had to listen carefully to hear the real conversation between Lady Miyara and Lord Bayushi. His first foray was lengthy, wordy, and utterly, completely polite and friendly. His meaning was something else entirely. Underneath the flowery words, he clearly communicated to Lady Miyara that he felt this audience with her was a total waste of his time. His last words masked a very impolite question: what do you want? He addressed her as "Daughter of Phoenix", ignoring her claimed position as Assistant to the Emerald Magistrate. Which was something she'd planned on downplaying anyway.

If he'd said any of that openly and honestly, she'd have taken his head. With her sword, not with words. By their standards, if he'd said it openly, she'd've had every right to do so. But since he hid behind obvious lies, perfuming his meaning with clearly insincere words, she'd be in the wrong to take open offense at his insults. Uneasily, I realized he and every man with him was eager for her -- us -- to make some slight mistake they could pounce on.

Lady Miyara, of course, gave them nothing. Her words matched his perfectly: wordy, polite, friendly, and they merely floated on top of the "real" conversation, which was not nearly so kind. I hid a smile as her response played up her position as daughter of the Phoenix Champion. Her rather bored-sounding reply to his masked implications of her "wasting his time" was an agreement of sorts: she was just here following social protocol -- as required and expected -- and found it equally a drain on her time. It was almost a rebuke: this was the proper thing to do, so why was he making a fuss about it?

His gaze on her sharpened, and his manner changed. Her skill at his game apparently changed his attitude towards the meeting. I think she was not what he expected at all.

Not that that changed the double-edged conversation, of course. He politely asked after her father, and she politely answered him. Utterly inconsequential, and only there to lead into a Scorpion's sting. I think I'm getting the hang of things here. I can't repeat his words when he asked about Lady Miyara's mother, which seemed on the surface to be as bland as his question about her father. But something indefinable turned his simple "how is she" question into a question laced with "of course I know that she's in a lot of trouble right now, but besides that, how is she?"

It was hard for me not to snap a look at her, but I didn't. And she continued throwing his games back into his face. With no tone that indicated she caught his meaning at all, she gave him the same meaningless answer as to her welfare that she did for her father's. It even made me wonder if she knew something, so that his question wasn't the surprise it was to the rest of us. But no, I'm sure that's not the case.

Since his sting failed, Bayushi moved the conversation into small talk about Winter Court. He never mentioned any of the interesting things we were mixed up in, just generalities and personalities and such that had little to no connection to us.

While the conversation droned endlessly nowhere, my attention wandered. It was brought back sharply by the sounds of a woman somewhere else in the house, crying, sobbing, weeping as though her heart was breaking. There was more than a touch of fear in it, as well.

For just a moment, Lord Bayushi's concentration was broken. For just a moment, he was clearly disturbed. Then he continued on as if nothing had happened, as if someone wasn't crying her life out somewhere nearby, and Lady Miyara took no notice of it at all.

I had no part to play here, except as a silent member of Lady Miyara's retinue. I'd been trying something new, and this seemed like a good time to do it for real.

I decoupled my spirit from my body, but I didn't entirely leave this world for the spirit world. Instead, I kept myself on this side. Walls, ceilings, and floors became unsolid in this new view, and the people in the room seemed somewhat unreal. The woman's cries came from above us, at least a couple of floors, I thought. I floated up through the ceiling to the floor above, but that was as far as I could reach. I could feel my body pulling my spirit back, and it took a constant effort to remain even that short distance away: not more than the height of a tall man. It was like standing on a tightrope with two people at either end pulling me where I didn't want to go. It was equally hard not to simply cross the veil into the spirit world and not to snap back into my body in this world.

I was in a room, not a hall as I'd hoped. I could hear some movement outside the room, but I couldn't leave the room and find anything else out.

So I discovered nothing important, and I discovered a great deal. With some effort, I could send my spirit a short distance away, and it was as though I was standing in that room above us instead of the room my body was actually in. I came back to myself, with a feeling of triumph. With practice, surely I'll be able to extend my reach beyond six feet.

The world re-shaped itself, and this room came back into its proper focus when my spirit melded with my body again. The shugenja was staring at me and whispering. As he realized I saw him, he ceased whispering, but his sharp look stayed on me. He wanted me to know he'd noticed that I was doing something -- I'm sure he thought I was doing something magical, like he would. He probably meant for me to feel threatened, maybe even frightened a little.

I'd come back into a room filled with tension, all centered around me. I set it aside for the moment and dealt with the shugenja trying to stare me down.

I flashed him as naive a smile as I could manage and winked at him. His answering smile was blatantly meant to intimidate me. I could almost see his own vision of himself, as a cat staring down a mouse he was about to pounce on.

Silly, really, although I didn't laugh in his face. I just used my smile to tell him I didn't share his estimation of himself, or of me. He's welcome to view himself as a cat if he'd like to, but it has little to do with how others see him, and none at all on how others see themselves. Perhaps he's more used to people simply accepting his view of the world.

Lady Miyara and Lord Bayushi were still droning on, saying nothing on either level of the conversation. The tension around me abated a bit after my silent exchange with the shugenja. I could pretty easily piece together what had happened.

The shugenja surely noticed when I left my body. When he began staring at me and whispering under his breath, Tony would certainly have reacted. With his dislike of sorcery, he must surely have tensed, ready to act against the shugenja if he tried anything. Mehli would have noticed at once and been likewise ready to act on my behalf. (And maybe just because she was probably as eager for action as Lord Bayushi's men.) The rest of the room would have readied themselves in reaction.

So I returned to my body in a room filled with people on the edge of violence. All except the two main actors, whose attention was solely on their own verbal battle, although I was certain they were both ready to explode into violence if it turned necessary. I watched Mehli relax her stance, last of all to do so, and reluctantly it seemed. She gave a brief nod of acknowledgement to her opposite.

With some surprise, I heard the conversation turn to birthday wishes. Lord Bayushi was wishing Lady Miyara a happy birthday? It was her birthday? She never mentioned that. There was a tone in his voice that was slightly off, and I knew, as usual, there was something else going on under the surface that I didn't understand.

Then Lady Miyara answered. It was not, in fact, her birthday, and she corrected him ever-so-sweetly. I don't know how she managed it, but she even asked how he could possibly have made such a stupid mistake, without offering any sort of (open) insult to him. Really, it's amazing how these people can twist their words around.

Mehli's nod to the shugenja caught his attention towards the end of that exchange. Without missing a beat, he took in the state of the room, and turned the conversation adroitly to another direction entirely: food. He maneuvered around, mentioned some strange delicacy I'd never heard of, and asked Lady Miyara if she liked it. His words were casual, his meaning was not. But I had no idea what he was talking about.

Lady Miyara said merely that although this whatever-it-was wasn't her favorite, she found it interesting, and perhaps even unusual.

And that was the end of the audience. Well, the conversation itself meandered on for a while as they took leave of each other, but it was really over then. He and his retinue left, and servants arrived to escort us out of the house.

The woman's weeping continued all the while. It greatly disturbed my spirit, and although everyone else ignored it, I looked around me as we wound through the house. But everything was shut up, and I saw nothing more than the single group of us. Did no one care? What was happening to the woman? Thinking back to the description of him in the retired magistrate's report, I felt very uneasy about it all.

On the way back to our house, I discovered that the last bit of Lord Bayushi's discussion was actually asking Lady Miyara how she might feel about a dinner invitation. Not an actual dinner invitation, but sort of an invitation to an invitation. I suppressed a shudder. Something about the man left me on edge. Venal, slippery, dishonest, selfish. Not a man I'd want to share a meal with.

The shugenja can pretend to be a cat all he likes. His master is a viper.